One of the curious features, to Americans, of the south coast of England is a area called “The New Forest,” which is, of course, many years older than most of the forests remaining to us in the states, and yet, has been carefully managed for a thousand years or so. It was founded, along with several other forests in England, by William the Conqueror as his private hunting grounds, where those without permission could be fined or mutilated for poaching the king’s deer.
Fallow Deer resting in the New Forest
Interestingly, legal records of the time suggest that, although harsh punishments such as the taking of an eye or even castration are on the books, fines were actually much more prevalent and the Conqueror and his heirs probably used such fines as an important source of revenue. Nevertheless, the founding of the Royal Forests was said to be cruel, casting out the villagers who once lived there and depended on the woods for their livelihood, and, perhaps, bringing down their curse upon the new king, who lost two sons in hunting “accidents.”
William Rufus, so-called because of his ruddy complexion, was the Conqueror’s eldest son, and became William II of England on the death of his father (1087). In August 1100 at the height of deer season, William Rufus rode out with a hunting party which divided so that some members served as beaters, sending game toward the archers. During this division, William Rufus was struck with an arrow through the lung. The nobles with him, perhaps justly fearing the consequences of the shot, fled and abandoned the body, which was subsequently found by a charcoal burner who loaded it in his cart to tend it.
The archer fled all the way to France, while Henry, the king’s brother and fellow huntsman that day, somewhat nonchalantly assumed the throne, leading many to speculate that the “accident” was, in fact, murder by collusion with the king’s younger brother. Hunting accidents were relatively common, but the hasty departure of the scene and the ignominy of the king’s retrieval suggest something else was going on.
Signage in the New Forest will direct the visitor toward the Rufus Stone, which allegedly marks the location of William II’s death. You can see it, and read more, at the New Forest National Park’s site. The entry on wikipedia is incomplete–it does not tell you there are, in fact, two Rufus Stones. One, as shown on both Wikipedia and the New Forest site, near Canterton, was erected in the 1750′s, and clad in iron in 1841 for greater durability.
The other is near the town of Beaulieu, home to the former abbey of the same name, and a good deal further south. Even the early chroniclers show some confusion about where, exactly, the king died, but recent study of the evidence available suggests the Beaulieu location is more likely. This stone is, well, a heap of stones, with a small, unassuming plaque about the king’s death.
The New Forest today still harbors several herds of deer–five varieties live there, including the lovely, spotted Fallow deer–though the wild boar also hunted there are gone. Herds of pigs and ponies graze among the widely-spaced trees, as they have done for centuries, limiting undergrowth in many areas. The copses, tracks, and tumuli remind us that this “New” forest, has been occupied and transformed by many generations of occupation, both before and after William the Conqueror claimed it for himself and for his ill-fated descendents.